Against Whiggery, Or, Between Despair & Presumption
I’ve been thinking about an exchange I had on the comboxes yesterday with reader Scott Nunn. Here it is:
Thanks for the long reply, Rod. It actually helps a lot. I’m with Jerry on this. But i accept where you are coming from. I just dont get it. I am curious: do you think you are representative of most Orthodox Christians? You seem to have such a pessimistic view about the future of God’s church. There seems to be no hope , no joy. I am a christian and i find great optimism in my faith in god. I dont fear the secular world. God is bigger. Please do not take any offense. You offer a view that I’m sure many of us liberal readers of your blog find very perplexing.
[NFR: Oh, I have plenty of hope and joy connected to my faith, and I wonder if you are mistakenly taking my pessimistic blogging about religious freedom and the dechristianization of the West as representative of the whole of my religious outlook. This is a blog in which I focus primarily on things happening in the news. True, it’s a blog with a strong focus on religion, but not so much on inspiration or spirituality. You’ll have the occasional post on things like the Jesus Prayer (but then, only because I found a news story in which Rowan Williams spoke of it), but mostly I’m going to blog on the interface between religion, Christianity in particular, and public life. That’s just the nature of this blog. I do find the news on that front to be rather pessimistic, though I can imagine as a liberal Christian, you see things very different from me. You no doubt think the sun is rising on the Christian world, whereas I see the sun setting. If I were writing a religion and spirituality blog that excluded commentary on news and cultural analysis, you’d see a different blog. But then, it wouldn’t be a blog that would be relevant to the editorial focus of The American Conservative. It often happens when I meet new people who only know me from my blog, that they say something along the lines of, “You are less angry than you come across on your blog.” I regret that I give such a negative impression. I don’t exaggerate anything for the sake of this blog; I really am that pessimistic about the state of the world, but what you don’t see unless you know me personally is that I keep most of that at arm’s length. In daily life, I’m a lot more light-hearted and, I think, easily amused. I think the world is going to hell, so to speak, but as long as there’s ice to refresh my drink and somebody to trade funny stories with, I’m having a good time being alive to observe it, and maybe eat a little something good too.
I think this deserves elaboration. Well, I’ve thought so since listening to the new Mars Hill Audio Journal on a road trip yesterday, a couple of interviews on which made me think more deeply about the points Scott raised.
As I’ve said here before, people often confuse hope with optimism. I am not an optimist. I generally expect bad things to happen, and am pleasantly surprised when they don’t. But I have great reserves of hope. How to explain this? Well, hope is not the conviction that good things will happen. Hope is the conviction that ultimately, all things work for the glory of God, and that at some point in the future, all will be redeemed. The practical effect of this is to rejoice that there is meaning in our suffering, that when things go bad, God is there and calls to us in our darkness. I never believed my sister would survive her cancer diagnosis, but I always had hope that the glory of God could be manifest in her suffering, and that if she died in faith, she would live forever with Him — and, by the grace of God, we would all join her someday.
If hope means saying, “You’re going to live!” when you don’t believe that’s true, then to hell with hope. I say hope means saying, “Whether you live or die, God is with you, and with us all, and He loves you and can redeem this terrible thing.”
From an orthodox Christian point of view, the short term, and near long term, for the faith in our culture and civilization looks pretty bleak. I can easily imagine a liberal, modernist Christian believing that things are looking up, but I don’t understand how anybody who holds to the non-modernist understanding of Christianity can believe that. And I think it is dangerous to lie to ourselves about where we are, and what’s likely to come next. We should prepare ourselves spiritually and otherwise for a time of trial — and seriously, there may be no greater trial than to try to hold on to our faith, and pass it on to our children, in a time of great wealth, liberty, and apostasy.
I’ve been thinking, though, about why Scott thinks I have no joy as a Christian. I think the gist of it is that I don’t separate any joy that I have from my Christian convictions. When I walk into a beautiful church, or admire a sunset, or smile at a newborn baby, or eat a fresh tomato, I silently give thanks to God for it. Really, I do. Every good thing comes from Him, and I think you’ve all been reading me long enough to know that I enjoy good things — food, drink, friendship, travel, books, music, and so on. I cannot separate my enjoyment of these things from my Christianity. This is not to say that one must be a Christian to enjoy life, but it is to say that the kind of Christianity I believe in is deeply incarnational, which is to say embedded in the material world and in the habits of life. On the new MHAJ, the Reformed philosopher James K.A. Smith speaks of how we know the world not only with our mind, but with our bodies (not a new idea for Catholics and Orthodox, to be clear, but Smith articulates it exceptionally well).
If you read me going on and on about the glories of Dante, that is a manifestation of my Christian joy. I’ll be in my kitchen cooking something good for supper, and put Louis Armstrong on the stereo, and I might as well be standing in church. All joy comes from God, at least that’s how I see it. But it is a particularly Christian kind of joy that can rejoice even amid sorrow, and even amid our weakness and temptation to despair. As Auden says, “Life remains a blessing, although you cannot bless.”
My favorite miracle of Jesus’s is his first one: turning water into wine at the wedding in Cana. In an interview with Smith in Commentmagazine (Winter 2013), Roberta Green Ahmanson explains one meaning of this deed, in a broader discussion about Christian patronage of the arts:
You first need to develop an expanded sense of what it means to do God’s work in the world. Dietrich Von Hildebrand has something to say about that. Some people think you should only give your money to feed the hungry or heal the sick or whatever. He doesn’t say that we shouldn’t do that, he just says that you’re missing part of the story — that that’s not the whole deal.
If you don’t understand that beauty is important too, then you’re giving to those other good things — well, he alls it cynical and hard and dry and he uses Cana as the example. I mean, what’s the first miracle Jesus does? Does he heal the sick, make the blind see, cast out demons, feed the hungry, get water for the thirsty? No, no, what does he do? He’s making more wine for a party where they probably already had plenty. So there goes the “luxury” critique.
Instead, Von Hildebrand calls it the superabundance of God. The point at Cana, the point in this extravagance, is joy. Jesus was showing everyone why we heal the sick and feed the hungry — so that they and we can enter into joy.
You can find something similar in John Calvin. Some place he asks, how do you know God’s wonderful, or something like that? The answer, he says, is: “Well, it’s because God made pears.” We had apples; we don’t need pears. It’s just extra. It’s an add on. God give you more. You’ve got apples. But you also get pears. [laughter] You get oranges. You get all this stuff, you know. You don’t need all those. But God gives them anyway.
I am hopeful because come what may, God is with us, and will redeem it, though perhaps not in our lifetimes. I am joyful because God made pears, and raw oysters, and wine, and wedding feasts, and my wife and kids, and France, and Dante, and West End Blues.
Anyway, I had just read Roberta’s interview a day ago, and was surprised yesterday to hear Mars Hill’s Ken Myers quoting George MacDonald on the wedding in Cana:
There is a glad significance in the fact that our Lord’s first miracle was this turning of water into wine. It is a true symbol of what he has done for the world in glorifying all things. With his divine alchemy he turns not only water into wine, but common things into radiant mysteries, yea, every meal into a eucharist, and the jaws of the sepulchre into an outgoing gate. . . . From all that is thus low and wretched, incapable and fearful, he who made the water into wine delivers men, revealing heaven around them, God in all things, truth in every instinct, evil withering and hope springing even in the path of the destroyer.
Yes, this. But how do you write about that vision on a blog that comments on news and culture? It’s not at all clear to me how I should do it, but because I believe it, I suppose I need to work harder at conveying this.
So why do I seem so gloomy to so many readers? The easy answer is that the world is rather rapidly leaving people who believe the things I do behind, and I find that dismaying. What many liberal readers see as progress, I see as decay. But that is too facile a description. There’s a good book called Benedict XVI: A Guide For the Perplexed (author: Tracey Rowland) that provides an introduction to the former (and best) pope’s theology. This passage explains to a significant degree where I’m coming from:
A variation on the presumption of a universal sponging is what Ratzinger calls “bourgeois Pelagianism.” He describes it as symptomatic of the following attitude: “if God really does exist and if he does in fact bother about people he cannot be so fearfully demanding as is described by the faith of the Church. Moreover I’m not worse than the others: I do my duty, and the minor human weaknesses cannot really be as dangerous as all that.” Here his use of the adjective “bourgeois” should not be construed to mean literally “middle class” but rather having a preference for that which will get one by, rather than striving for excellence. A number of European sociologists have used the expression in this way, including Werner Sombart, who argued that Protestant cultures tend to be bourgeois, while Catholic cultures tend to be “erotic” and aristocratic. Here “erotic” does not mean explicitly sexual but rather passionately driven by transcendent ideals. The bourgeois personality type makes do with what is serviceable and is content to just get across the line while the aristocratic personality type always wants the best. The corrosive effect of the bourgeois mentality on Catholic spirituality and the theological virtue of hope was a recurring theme in the novels of Georges Bernanos and thus reading Bernanos helps to place Ratzinger’s use of this experession into a richer spiritual context. One example of Bernanos’ treatment of this theme which included elements of both pious and bourgeois Pelagianism can be found in the following paragraph taken from We, the French:
There exists a Christian order. This order is the order of Christ, and the Catholic tradition has preserved its essential principles. But the temporal realization of this order does not belong to the theologians, the casuists, the theologians or the doctors, but to us Christians. And it seems that the majority of Christians are forgetting this elementary truth. They believe that the Kingdom of God will happen all by itself, providing they obey the moral rules (which, in any event, are common to all decent people), abstain from working on Sunday (if, that is, their business doesn’t suffer too much for it), attend a Low Mass on this same day, and above all have great respect for clerics. … This would be tantamount to saying that, in times of war, an army could quite fulfill the nation’s expectations if its men were squeaky clean, if they marched in step behind the band, and saluted their officers correctly.
Implicit within the mentality of the bourgeois Pelagian is a failure to critically analyse contemporary culture from a theological standpoint, and a concomitant tendency to blend in with the norms of the surrounding culture rather than being a sign of contradiction to a secular worldview.
Rowland goes on to say that Benedict XVI sees “despair and presumption” as two characteristic, and deeply connected, sins of our age. The one who despairs doesn’t pray because he has lost hope, according to Benedict; the one who presumes doesn’t pray because he doesn’t think he needs God. Rowland says that Benedict rejects “post-Conciliar Whiggish thinking” (great phrase!) that believes we are living in the best of all possible worlds, and that things are getting better and better as liberalism and modernity advance.
Well, I’m not a Whig; I am by nature and conviction a Tory, a worldview that, according to A.J.P. Taylor, “rests on doubt in human nature; it distrusts improvement, clings to traditional institutions, prefers the past to the future.” I deeply reject the cheap optimism and conformity of our times, to the point where I sometimes fall into cheap pessimism and crankery (e.g., three posts yesterday on that idiotic Archie-the-homophobia-martyr stunt, when one would have done; but hey, the kitschiness, the sanctimony, the Whiggishness, and the media-driven conformity of the dismantling of marriage and the family ticks me off).
If I didn’t have children, I suppose I would content myself to be an semi-hermited eccentric who took his pleasures in books, art, food, drink, church, and conversation. The urgency, I think, comes from a deep sense that the wheels are coming off, and these little people whom I love more than my own life will have a harder row to hoe as Christians than I ever did. I have a fondness for eccentrics, and a strong sense of toleration for nonconformists. But it’s easy to tolerate eccentrics and nonconformists within a social order that is relatively stable; like a jazz composer, we can be most free to improvise if we have strong boundaries. It seems to me that ours is rapidly losing stability, at least measured by the standards of orthodox (small-o) Christianity, because we are casting off boundaries. We are losing our sense of what it means to be human. To recast the famous line from Yeats, the worst are full of passionate hatred of what I know to be true, and the best are bourgeois Pelagians, also known as Moralistic Therapeutic Deists.
One way or another, I’ve spent most of my professional life as a critic, whether analyzing movies, politics, culture, whatever. My standard mode is critical, not because I’m grumpy by nature, but because I never stop analyzing (as I wrote in The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, this is both a virtue of mine and a vice), and for some inscrutable reason, I am given over to decline-and-fall narratives. The reader Scott’s comment — a critical one, but meant in a friendly way — makes me realize that to criticize disproportionately is to distort. St. Peter tells the faithful in 1 Peter, Chapter 3, to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give a reason for the hope that you have.” I don’t do that often enough on this blog, mostly for the reasons I’ve already discussed, but also because I don’t use this blog to evangelize. Yet if people who meet me in person after reading this blog are surprised that I’m not angry and morose, but exactly the opposite, then I am failing to convey a sense of the hope that I really do have. In which case I thank Scott most sincerely for giving me the chance to think about it, and to work on it.
God made pears. Don’t forget that.
UPDATE: I like this, which I blogged elsewhere today. The future Benedict XVI also wrote, in The Yes Of Jesus Christ:
Jeremiah the pessimist showed himself to be the true bearer of hope. For the others everything had necessarily to have come to an end with this defeat: for him everything at this moment was beginning anew. God is never defeated, and his promises do not collapse in human defeats: indeed, they become greater, as love grows to the extent that the beloved has need of it.